How to Read Beauty Labels
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How to Read Beauty Labels

A crash course in personal skincare ingredients.

Reading Between the Lines

You shouldn't have to be a chemical engineer to figure out what you're putting on your face. Skincare labels often list a host of ingredients that are completely unfamiliar -- just what are tocopheryl acetate, methylparaben, and stearic acid? More important, are they harmful to your skin?

Skincare expert Barbara Close, author of Pure Skin, Organic Beauty Basics, explains that skin does, in fact, react differently to natural and synthetic ingredients. When using products containing non-natural ingredients, "there is a possibility for toxicity, and they can irritate the skin," says Close, who cites diethanolamine (DEA), monoethanolamine (MEA), triethanolamine (TEA), FD&C, and parabens as some of the most common synthetic ingredients.

Here, a cheat sheet of common ingredients found in personal care products.

Common Synthetic Ingredients

  • Adipic acid/diethylene: A conditioner, fixative, and polymer
  • Beeswax: An emulsifier, often synthetic, decolorized and deodorized
  • Carbomer: A petroleum-derived thickening and stabilizing agent; potential allergen
  • Disodium EDTA (ethylene diamine tetra acetic acid): A synthetic chemical used as an antioxidant and preservative
  • Glycol/glycerin crosspolymer: A synthetically produced emulsifier derived from propylene alcohol
  • Methylparaben and pabaparaben: Commonly used preservative in cosmetics and beauty products; possibly carcinogenic
  • PEG 100 stearate (polyethylene glycol): A binder and emulsifier that increases spreadability
  • Retinyl palmitate: A skin conditioner derived from Vitamin A
  • Stearic acid: An emulsifier and thickening agent derived from tallow or other animal fats
  • Triethanolamine (TEA): A petroleum-derived emulsifier; possibly carcinogenic

Common Natural Ingredients

  • Aloe vera gel: An effective healing agent for burns; derived from the thin-walled mucilaginous cells of the plant
  • Ascorbic palmitate: Vitamin C, an active free-radical scavenger
  • Green tea extract: Counteracts irritation caused by acidic products on the skin
  • Lecithin: A plant-derived from soybeans, with skin-protection qualities, and used as an emulsifier and surfactant
  • Potassium sorbate: A food-grade yeast and mold inhibitor
  • Safflower oil: A cold-pressed oil rich in essential fatty acids
  • Sodium hydroxymethylglycinate: A natural preservative derived from glycine
  • Superoxide dismutase (SOD): A natural liposome that allows phospholipids and vitamins to deeply penetrate the lower levels of skin
  • Tocopheryl acetate: Vitamin E
  • Xanthan gum: A polysaccharide used in cosmetics as a thickener, emulsifier, and stabilizer

Excerpted from Pure Skin: Organic Beauty Basics, by Barbara Close, Chronicle Books.

Originally published on, April 2006.